By Bill Swank
In 1949, the Kewpies were the worst basketball team in the entire state of Indiana.
I was an eight-year-old third grader when my family moved to Columbia City, Indiana. I’d never played basketball in my life. My father convinced me that basketball was religion in the Hoosier State. If I was going to make friends and influence people, I would have to learn how to put a ball in a hoop.
Our first Saturday in town, the old man took me to the local high school gymnasium where the junior leagues were in full action. I was immediately assigned to the Kewpies.
I didn’t want to be a Kewpie. Any team with a name like the Kewpies had to be a bad omen.
I was handed a crimson singlet with a black block letter “K” on the chest. My captain was a good-natured, but frustrated fourth grader named Dean Growcock. He was the only kid on the team who could play. His lowly Kewpies hadn’t won any games; they rarely scored any points.
Poor Dean Growcock… cursed at birth with an unfortunate surname and now saddled with a bad team with a bad name, he needed help. Instead, he got another terrible player.
The first time Dean passed the ball to the new kid, I panicked and started to run. The referee blew his whistle.
Instinctively, I looked to see my father grimace and place his hand over his eyes. His ever-present cigar was clenched tight in his teeth. Even though this was a Saturday morning, my big shot father was wearing a suit, flashy wide tie and brimmed fedora. Embarrassed by his eldest son’s gaffe, he pivoted and walked out of the gym.
My father never watched me play another game of basketball in Indiana.
I was determined to become a basketball player, but the better I got, the worse I became. This statement can be proven statistically.
Somebody put a backboard and hoop on our garage. I don’t remember whom, but it sure wasn’t my father. It was probably a kind neighbor who understood that Indiana kids have to play basketball.
I practiced every day. Near the end of the season, I grabbed a rebound and quickly put up a shot.
It ricocheted off the backboard and fell through the net! I was ecstatic.
But there was a problem. In my excitement, I scored at the wrong end. A lot of kids didn’t make any baskets that year, but my scoring average was –.22 for the season.
The Kewpies have a long and mediocre history in Columbia City youth basketball dating back to the 1930s. They have always stunk, but I’m probably the only player in their miserable existence to have compiled a negative scoring average.
My parents divorced and, in 1955, my father attended one of my high school basketball games in Farmington, Minnesota. At that time, I was a freshman guard on the junior varsity team. I played well and couldn’t wait to hear my father’s compliments after the game.
His observation was succinct: “You’ve improved.”
Times were different back then. In the 1950s, self-esteem was not part of the curriculum for the masses. We were taught to be humble.
I was satisfied just to know my father could see that I’d become a basketball player. Self-confidence was something you had to earn on your own.
Long after we moved away, I learned that the Kewpies won a league championship in the 1960s. At least for one year, the Kewpies weren’t the worst team in Indiana.
Bill Swank moved to San Diego in 1955 and attended Mission Bay High School on a basketball scholarship. After leading the Buccaneers in scoring against La Jolla, Swank and the coach had a disagreement about playing time. Later, he suffered a surfing injury that destroyed his dreams of playing at San Diego State and in the NBA.